August has been a painful month for Sikhs living in the United States and worldwide. The August 5th shootings at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek Wisconsin brought up urgent issues of racial discrimination and xenophobia facing members of American Sikh community. To me the incident represents a symptom of larger problem of racist and anti-immigrant sentiments pervasive in current politics that implicates all minorities. In a divisive election year political pundits and politicians have stepped up the hateful rhetoric, preying once again on public fears of the unknown and the “other.” Sikhs, especially turban wearing Sikh men, are experiencing even greater level of racial profiling and violence since 9/11.
With the turban being miss-associated with terrorism and religious extremism, it is easy to speculate on the gunman’s motives and why he specifically targeted turbaned Sikh men upon entering the temple. Seeing the images of the six victims led me to reflect on my own relationship to hair and turban. For me the two symbols have less to do with my faith and more to do with my cultural identity, my relationship with my family, my childhood in India, my experiences as an immigrant in the United States, and lately as a topic of ethnographic research and my latest documentary film Roots of Love: On Sikh Hair and Turban.
I grew up in a traditional Sikh family in Chandigarh, India. I was thirteen years old when my father drove me to a barbershop and had the barber chop off my long thick hair which when loose extended below my waist. Though I knew this moment was coming, I was startled when I looked in the mirror and realized that my hair and the turban that had held it in place were suddenly gone. I’d be lying if I said I mourned the loss of my hair. Instead I recall feeling a sense of nervous anticipation as I underwent this transformation. I knew that this was the first step in a much larger change that my life was about to undergo as my family prepared to migrate to the United States.
At thirteen I was too young to fully understand my father’s decision to first forgo his own unshorn hair and turban and later have my brother and my hair trimmed. I simply accepted his explanation that “you can’t wear turbans in America! You must look like other Americans,” as just another item on the list of thing one can or cannot do in the United States—you can eat beef, you cannot visit your neighbors unannounced, etc.
When my mother saw my cropped hair, she let out a disappointing sign, “I had spent so much time and energy caring for your hair.” She insisted that I bring my severed locks home with me in a plastic bag, which she kept as a nishani (memento) of my childhood. My grandfather is a retired jailor and a proud turban wearing Sikh who regularly reminisced about his time in the British Army during WW2 as a member of Sikh regiments that the British had formed to specifically to accommodate turban-wearing Sikh men. He was infuriated by his son’s actions. While living under the same roof, he refused to acknowledge us for nearly two months. Two decades later he still remains scornful of our betrayal, and energetically expresses his disappointment in my parents for trimming our hair and leaving our home in India.
Studying at a public high school in northern California I quickly understood why my father stressed that we assimilate into American culture and why we “couldn’t wear turbans in America.” I attended high school with a boy named Sunny who belonged to an orthodox Sikh family. Sunny wore a navy blue patka to school every day, a square piece of cloth tightly concealing his unshorn hair tied into a topknot. Sikh mothers cover their son’s hair with patkas until they are in their early teens. Around the age of fourteen Sikh boys undergo the turban tying ceremony, a ritual called dastar bandhi, where an adult member of the family (usually an uncle or the father) ties the first turban. Held at a Sikh temple in the presence of family and relatives, the ceremony marks a rite of passage into manhood. From that moment on, the father assumes the responsibility of teaching his son how to tie a turban.
While Sunny never wore a turban to school, he was teased mercilessly for his topknot and patka. “Nipplehead,” “Diaperhead,” and “A-Raab” were some of the expletives other students regularly hurled at him in the school hallways. In comparison my high school was not much easier even without my turban. I had come out (as gay) during my freshman year, which invited a different set of insults and verbal abuse from our fellow students. Sunny and I rarely spoke to each other and we fell out of touch entirely after graduating high school. I reconnected with Sunny via Facebook nearly a decade later as I was getting ready to make Roots of Love. By now Sunny too had cut his hair and no longer wore the patka that had largely defined his high school experience. After talking to Sunny I learned that like many other turbaned Sikhs living in the United States, he too had made the decision to forgo his hair and turban after shortly after the 9/11 attacks. His decision was motivated by fear of racial profiling and his family’s concern for their safety.
In the weeks following 9/11 attacks, one of the first casualties of US anger was an innocent Sikh man named Balbir Singh Sodhi gunned down while working at a gas station in Mesa, Arizona. A report by The Sikh Coalition cites nearly 300 documented cases of violence and discrimination against Sikh Americans within the first month after the attacks [link]. While the problem of hate crimes against members of Sikh community has persisted even before 9/11, the Federal Bureau of Investigation to date does not list “Sikh” as religious category within its current system for tracking hate crimes.
As the shootings in Wisconsin left politicians and news media scrambling to figure out why the temple was targeted, who Sikhs really are and in Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s case how to pronounce their name, Sikh families around the country watched in horror as our worst fears were once against being realized. In the aftermath of the Wisconsin shootings, US news media ran special segments explaining who Sikhs are and the religious significance of unshorn hair and turbans with in Sikhism. Sikhs are “unfairly targeted” and mistaken for Muslims reported Eric Marrapodi, CNN’s resident religion expert who went on to state “So when people went out trying to commit a hate crime against Muslims, what we found was that Sikhs were the ones that were attacked in the United States. Many Muslims men here in the United States don’t wear the turban. It’s not fashionable. But for Sikhs it’s not about fashion. It’s an important article of their faith.” While I appreciate news media’s attempt to educate US audiences about Sikhism, statements like these seem to justify racial profiling of Muslim Americans by neglecting to denounce discrimination and violence against all minorities and immigrants regardless of their religious affiliation.
Unfortunately, US news media is not the only one who made this crucial omission in their coverage of the Wisconsin shooting. In the aftermath of the shootings, leaders in Sikh community have largely focused their efforts on informing public that Sikhs with beards and turbans should not be mistaken as Muslims. As Kaur and Singh point out, that “mistaken identity implies that there is correct target” and “that hate violence should rightfully be directed at Muslims.” I agree with Kaur and Singh that we must discourage the use of mistaken identity narrative because to an extremist like Wade Michael Page, the gunman who carried out the Wisconsin shooting, it matters little if his victims are Sikhs or Muslims. We must denounce all acts of violence against any religious groups. More importantly, we must also hold our politicians, policy makers, political pundits and ourselves responsible for creating a climate of hostility and hate that encourages men like Page to commit such unimaginable acts of violence.
[W]e must discourage the use of mistaken identity narrative because to an extremist like…the gunman who carried out the Wisconsin shooting, it matters little if his victims are Sikhs or Muslims. We must denounce all acts of violence against any religious groups. More importantly, we must also hold our politicians, policy makers, political pundits and ourselves responsible for creating a climate of hostility and hate.
I made Roots of Love because I wanted to show how for many Sikhs, unshorn hair and turban are more than a religious or political symbol that due to its unfamiliarity and its miss-association with 9/11 and terrorism has been transformed into something threatening—both to the security of the state and to the safety of the family. Among most Sikh families in India, hair and turban represent nurturance, love and respect. These symbols form a connection across generations, representing a familial investment in cultivating a sense of distinct cultural identity and history. For Sikh parents and grandparents turbans evoke feelings of pride as they witness their sons and grandsons being transformed into men. For young Sikh men, turbans simultaneously represent the independence and responsibilities of adulthood. While they express their frustrations with having to tie a turban every day, they also describe how they enjoy the sense of masculine superiority their turbans lend them. I wanted to show how a son’s decision to cut his unshorn hair and forgo his turban results in a loss that is experienced by the whole family.
Another unfortunate consequence of incidents like the shootings in Wisconsin and other hate crimes against turbaned Sikhs in the North America or Europe is that many young Sikh men who dream of migrating abroad often cut their unshorn hair even before filling out their passport applications. While doing fieldwork research in India, exploring notions of gender and migration among Sikh men, I also discovered that while Sikh migrants abandon their turbans when leaving the country, when visiting India they readopt the symbol before presenting themselves before their families. This recent trend of migrants using the turban as a flexible symbol of belonging is yet another facet of the Sikh culture that remains hidden from mainstream US media.
The news of Wisconsin shooting was heartbreaking. Though the US news media did a fairly adequate job of giving us a textbook definition of Sikhism, I was left feeling a sense of hopelessness in our inability to understand, respect and celebrate cultural diversity. Where the new media and political pundits fall short, anthropologists can help fill this void and humanize our differences so we no longer regard what is unfamiliar as threatening and help avoid incidents like the Wisconsin shooting in the future that shake the very foundation of humanity upon which we all have to coexist.
Harjant S Gill is an assistant professor of anthropology at Towson University, Maryland.